At about 80 million strong, the millennial generation, which comprises those born between 1980 and the early 2000s, is the largest generational cohort in US history.

As this diverse demographic group reaches its peak earning years, millennials' preferences and consumer behavior are increasingly taken into account in marketing strategies and business planning—especially in the e-commerce sphere, since millennials tend to be avid online shoppers.

As with any other generation, millennials are not a monolithic group, so it's important not to overgeneralize. But generations are shaped to some extent by the times in which they come of age, so it makes sense that marketers who wish to reach this demographic group understand the forces that drive millennials. For e-commerce marketers, knowing what makes millennials tick is critical to success.

Here are three things to keep in mind while marketing to millennials.

1. Consistently deliver value

One unique thing about millennials is that they grew up with the Internet and are therefore accustomed to interacting with peers on social media. Many of them don't remember a time when it wasn't possible to google a product, company, or person to learn more about them, or to interact with a business online.

Although millennials value their privacy, they are more willing than previous generations to share personal information with companies in exchange for something of value.

For marketers, the opportunities presented by that willingness to share are clear: Millennials tend to be receptive to interactions across numerous social media platforms and they're willing to provide data when there's something in it for them.

Promotions that require customers to "like" a company on Facebook or follow a business on Twitter can work, but it's important for the marketer to ensure that all communications that follow deliver value. That doesn't necessarily have to entail monetary incentives; information can be useful and appreciated, too. But value should be a centerpiece of the communication strategy.

2. Build trust via quality products and excellent service

All customers tend to seek companies that provide quality products, and consumers want to be treated with respect and consideration when they need support. But what makes millennials unique is their willingness to share their experience with brands online.

Millennials tend to communicate with peers in real time on social media about life experiences, large and small; accordingly, companies that get it right when dealing with millennial customers have an amazing opportunity to bolster their brand image and gain word-of-mouth marketing value.

The flip side is that millennials are just as eager (or even more so!) to share a poor experience with a product or service, or to detail a negative encounter with a customer service rep.

Millennials who are impressed with a company's products and customer support tend to become repeat customers, but brands that lose millennials' goodwill find it hard to win it back. That's why it's so important to build trust with top-quality products and quickly resolve customer issues.

3. Appeal to their sense of idealism

Although occasionally misrepresented as self-centered, millennials are actually a civic-minded and group-oriented generation.

Many millennials are understandably cynical about companies and institutions, having come of age during a period of social, political, and economic turmoil. They tend not to believe traditional advertising claims. But they do believe in the power of working together to effect change, and millennials are more likely to associate with brands that reflect such personal values.

For those reasons, companies that operate sustainably, or show serious commitment to giving back to the community, tend to attract millennials' support.

This piece of millennial marketing advice can be especially handy: Promotions that donate a portion of proceeds—or donate a product that matches a product that a consumer has purchased—to a group in need (or a worthy cause) appeal to millennial consumers in particular.

* * *

As they make up more and more of the workforce and they reach their peak earning years, millennials will increasingly dominate commercial activities. Marketers will therefore need to retool traditional approaches to brand-building and consumer outreach to better reflect millennial values and preferences.

Millennial consumers share traits with other demographic groups, of course, but their online buying habits and generational values are fairly distinctive, so it makes sense for e-commerce marketers to rethink their approach so that they can capture this group's business.

A focus on delivering value across communication campaigns on every platform is a must, as is a commitment to providing top-quality products and services. Above all, millennials are drawn to authenticity in both communication and corporate behavior.

In our experience at Zenni Optical, reaching out to customers across multiple platforms and helping people who don't have access to vision care has helped solidify our audience base among millennial consumers.*

As we've found, companies that can sincerely reflect millennials' values as consumers and members of the global community, by demonstrating that they care about making the world a better place, can win this generation's loyalty—and its business.

*Zenni has donated tens of thousands of pairs of eyeglasses to those in need and makes cash donations to Lions Club International each year.

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Top Three Ways to Market to Millennials

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image of Hernan Vicuna

Hernan Vicuna is brand manager at Zenni Optical, an online retailer of prescription eyewear.

LinkedIn: Hernan Vicuna